Archives For Formation Groups

One of Storyline’s most important structures for life change / spiritual formation / following Jesus is a Formation Group. These are gender specific groups of 2-3 people who journey together on a weekly basis for the sake of listening to God and to each other.

Over the last 3-4 years, I’ve been on quite the journey regarding this discipleship structure. When I worked with Christ Journey Church, we experimented with Greg Ogden’s Discipleship Essentials. It bore fruit, as demonstrated by comments on a previous post, but was too head-heavy and hard to reproduce.

When we started Storyline, we began using Neil Cole’s template for Life Transformation Groups. He’s written a book about his approach called Search and Rescue. I’ve very much enjoyed Cole’s approach, especially the inherent reproducibility, high dose of Scripture reading, focus on mission, and patterns for confession of brokenness. My only qualm was that the language of his template was “too evangelical” and foreign to the language we used within the Storyline Community – terms like “Strategic Prayer Focus”, and an overwhelming focus on mission as it pertained to people’s souls, to the neglect of more holistic expressions of mission like working for justice.

It wasn’t until I began experimenting with Church of Two this spring that another point of dissonance with Cole emerged: the lack of a contemplative element. Granted, Cole uses the language of listening to God, particularly through reading long sections of Scripture, but he offered little help in how one actually goes about trying to hear something. Church of Two, however, builds its entire existence around the practice of listening. After finding some life in it ourselves, we decided that Storyline’s Formation Groups would benefit from that same focus on listening.

At this point we were faced with a decision: do we transition to Church of Two or do we build a hybrid version that draws out the best of both Cole’s Life Transformation Groups and Church of Two? At first, I didn’t think such a hybrid was possible, particularly because the two represent fundamentally different paradigms for discipleship. But at the end of the day, we decided for the hybrid because of shortcomings we perceived with Church of Two – the principal shortcoming being that it didn’t give adequate attention to the role of Scripture in the formation of disciples.

Church of Two‘s approach to Scripture amounts to reading as much or as little as one senses God is leading her to read. Personally, I read much less Scripture  in my Church of Two experiences than with any other approach with which I’ve experimented (either contemplatively, via Lectio Divina, or in sheer volume, as with Cole’s approach). Other friends of mine in Church of Two have admitted to similar experiences. I actually read almost no Scripture in Church of Two groups – which is fine, I suppose, because I’ve been reading and studying Scripture for many years.

But what about newcomers to the story? If Scripture is the normative story of God’s work in the world, how else are those who are new to the faith to be formed by the story unless they are spending time listening to it (i.e., by reading Scripture)?

I know that not everyone’s experience with Church of Two regarding Scripture mirrors my own in this regard. I anticipate proponents of Church of Two reiterating: if people are listening to God, God will tell them how much Scripture they need to read. The same logic follows for other big staples in the diet of a Jesus-follower like confession of brokenness and participation in mission.

All this leads to my fundamental hesitation about Church of Two, best expressed in a comment I made on a previous post:

Here’s a hesitation I have about assuming that confession, Bible reading, and participation in mission will flow out of CO2s: what if it doesn’t? The CO2 model seems to have a pretty high view of humanity: that if we listen, we’ll hear from God…and have the courage and faith to respond accordingly. How do we factor in our brokenness into the equation? I’ve sensed in my own participation, for instance, the desire to resist confession because I didn’t want to share it. I was resisting God, really. And because there was no explicit accountability mechanism to hold my feet to the fire, I just let it slide. I guess I’m concerned about the way my own brokenness has the potential to hijack the experience. None of this is to say that human brokenness cannot hijack Neil Cole’s LTGs – it certainly can. But there’s something in me that feels good knowing that people will constantly be attentive to Scripture, confession and mission because they’ve given others the permission to support them in that.

I’m concerned that unless checks and balances are put in place, “This is what I heard from God…” could potentially function as an unquestioned, unchallenged expression of human brokenness – even unwittingly. It seems very difficult to argue with such a statement otherwise. One check/balance is relationships in which I submit to other people who are listening to God/God’s story. The work of discernment (and the tentativeness assumed therein) is another. But, in the end, both of these elements gain their footing by standing on Scripture. Scripture is the normative check/balance, because followers of Jesus really don’t know if they’ve heard from God unless it jives with the story of God in Scripture.

Certainly Scripture can be, and has been, hijacked by human brokenness as well. It’s a risk we will always face as finite humans. But if Scripture is, in fact, the normative story, we have no choice but to face it.

Let me be clear: none of this is to say I’ve sensed that my friends in Church of Two have listening to God in such a way that it was hijacked by their brokenness; it’s only to say that I sense it’s a very real danger of the approach.

For Storyline, the result of this process and conversation (for now) is a beta version of Storyline’s Formation Groups template. Those of you who know Neil Cole’s work will see the influence of his work in the template. Those of you who know Church of Two will see its influence as well.

This template is not offered as the ‘answer’ by any means. It’s very contextual. It’s far from perfect. It’s merely Storyline’s small contribution to this particular structure of discipleship after experimenting with many different approaches.

I’d love for anyone to take a look at it – better yet, give it a test run with a group of friends – then give us some feedback on how we might make the next version better. We’re testing it currently in the Storyline Community, too – so this request is also aimed for you Storyliners out there!

Just click on the image below to download a PDF of the template.

Church of Two

Charles Kiser —  April 8, 2010 — 5 Comments

I’ve been enriched in the past few weeks by an emerging structure for spiritual formation called Church of Two.

Church of Two – and you can read more about it at the CO2 Blog or – provides a rhythm for listening to God and others. It revolves around two spiritual practices: contemplation (listening to God) and transparency (sharing one’s heart at a deep level and listening to others do the same).

In short, two people journey together over the course of a few weeks. They connect to each other daily (sometimes briefly, other times for longer). When they connect they “check in” by sharing the state of their heart with each other (e.g., happy, sad, scared, anxious, excited, etc. or a combination of several). Each person listens to the other with an ear toward how God might be at work in the midst of their feelings and experiences.

This Church of Two also shares about how they have been listening to God and what they’ve been hearing. The other person serves as a partner to help discern whether or not what’s being heard is really coming from God or somewhere else (like one’s own ingenuity or the forces of evil).

Sometimes the Church of Two takes time to sit and listen to God together. The group might take time to listen, for instance, about persisting anxiety in one participant’s life.

Church of Two participants also begin the experience thinking and looking for others with whom they might link up. At the end of the few weeks, they branch out and start the Church of Two experience with others.

I’ve had the privilege of participating in Church of Two with Hobby Chapin, my co-worker Ryan Porche, and Paul McMullen over the last six weeks. Hobby, in particular, has been a mentor to me in listening to God and blogs regularly about his experiences here.

The benefits of Church of Two are immense: it has helped me stay in touch with myself much better; I’m learning to listen to others at a deeper level; I’m learning to listen to God and discern what I’m hearing in times of stillness; I’m learning to have times of stillness – period; it’s a great tool for discernment and decision making; it has helped me to connect to old friends on deeper levels; I’ve seen others, like Micah Lewis, use it as a connecting point for disconnected friends who are searching for God.

More than anything, Church of Two has helped me feel like I am in a real relationship with God because of its inherent reciprocity: I share with God, and God shares with me – just like in any other healthy relationship.

Right now I’m wrestling with several questions about how to integrate the practices of Church of Two into my life and ministry:

  • What is the relationship of Church of Two to the spiritual practice of reading Scripture?
  • What is the relationship of Church of Two to the spiritual practice of confession?
  • What is the relationship of Church of Two to the spiritual practice of petitionary prayer?
  • How do we integrate the practices of Church of Two with other structures of spiritual formation in our community – particularly the rhythms of Scripture reading, confession and prayer for the disconnected that takes place in our formation groups?
  • Previous question from a different angle: are the Church of Two and Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Group models for spiritual formation mutually exclusive or can they integrate?
  • What accountability mechanisms exist for discernment in relation to what people hear when they listen?
  • Is Church of Two best suited as a “seasonal” spiritual practice or a regular part of my spiritual diet?

If you want a helpful two-page description of Church of Two, you can find one here.

I’d encourage you to give it a whirl if you’re looking to inject some life into your relationships with God and other people.

Enjoy a recent video from our Marvelous Light retreat on May 1-2. You’ll also soon be able to view this video, along with other Storyline videos already posted, at

The Relational Principle

Charles Kiser —  November 26, 2007 — 3 Comments

Probably the most common means of evangelization in the last hundred years has been through the medium of large crowds. Billy Graham, the king of mass evangelism, has preached to nearly 100 million people in his lifetime all over the world. Many of these crowds have numbered in the thousands or hundreds of thousands. Churches of Christ were once well known for hosting gospel meetings (and some still do). Hundreds of people gather, sometimes every night for a week, to listen to preachers present the gospel.

The logic behind such gatherings is that the gospel is preached to the most people possible; the more exposure people have to the gospel message, the more likely they are to respond and follow Jesus. People who do respond in faith are then assimilated into local congregations for follow-up and discipleship. So goes the logic.

The effect of these mass evangelistic events has not been unsuccessful in terms of initial conversion. If it were, I suppose the venue wouldn’t have lasted very long. Billy Graham’s son speaks at Crusades to this day. Undoubtedly, thousands have come to faith and decided to follow Jesus because of a Crusade or gospel meeting.

Yet I wonder if the gospel is done injustice when evangelization (and discipleship, for that matter) is truncated to an oral presentation or a set of propositions in which to believe. The gospel must be preached, of course. It includes propositions to believe, for sure. But on the whole, the gospel is a way of life. The gospel is about following a person — Jesus.

At the heart of the gospel is relationship. After all, Jesus spent the majority of his time not with the crowds, but with a handful of men and women. I love the way Eugene Peterson puts it: “Jesus, it must be remembered, restricted nine tenths of his ministry to twelve Jews, because it was the only way to reach all Americans.” The gospel spreads relationally.

td.jpgThis relational principle has revolutionized our perspective on ministry in the church we’ll start. In short, the heart of the church we begin will not be a large gathering (whether an evangelistic event or a worship assembly) but rather handfuls of people who journey together in the way of Jesus.

One way we envision expressing the relational principle is through gender-specific groups of three or four that meet regularly over a 6-9 month period for the sake of learning how to follow Jesus. Greg Ogden has been a great help to us in this area. He’s authored two books that have fleshed out what it looks like: Transforming Discipleship and Discipleship Essentials. The first is theological and practical rationale for such an approach. The second is a 24-lesson curriculum designed to help people learn to follow Jesus.

Three components form the foundation of these groups: Scripture, transparent relationships, and accountability. The best part is that after the groupsde.gif conclude their curriculum, each group member commits to finding two other people to journey with through it. One group becomes three, which becomes nine, which becomes twenty-seven, and so on. The gospel spreads relationally.

I’ve been through Discipleship Essentials once with three other guys, and am now going through it with Ryan Porche, my staff partner. Our wives plan to go through it together soon. These two groups will soon become four and function as the grassroots beginning of this new church. The curriculum isn’t perfect, but the environment is the Holy Spirit’s laboratory for life change. It’s amazing the way I’ve seen transformation take place right before my eyes. And I think it’s at the center of what it means to be the church, to be on mission, and to engage in spiritual formation.